The Howling Terror

View to the north from Devil's Dyke

One tranquil day in July 1900 terror suddenly came to the good people of Sussex as a sound never heard before came hurtling over the South Downs. The newspapers nicknamed it 'The Howling Terror' and predicted that this demonic invention would come to dominate the new century and blight everyone’s life.

In reality what the locals were hearing was nothing diabolical. It was just a human voice amplified to deafening levels by a giant megaphone placed on top of Devil's Dyke.

The megaphone's capacity to allow a voice to be heard for miles around soon took on mythical proportions. It must have been truly frightening for people still living in an age without radio and loudspeakers to hear strange sounds and disembodied voices.

This early experiment in sound manipulation was the work of a self-styled scientific expert and engineer called Horace L. Short. He was trying to perfect a way of amplifying sound by using compressed air.

Horace was sponsored by Colonel George Edward Gouraud, an American Civil War veteran and representative of Thomas Edison and the device they developed became known as the Gouraudophone.

Little did Horace Short know but the well-known inventor Charles Parsons was working on a gadget based on the same concept at his home in Northumberland. When Horace lost the sponsorship of Col. Gouraud, Charles Parsons bought him out and paid him a salary to work for him.

Together the two inventors produced a new contraption they named the Auxetophone which they sold to gramophone companies. When attached to a gramophone the Autexophone would amplify the sound sufficiently to be heard in large venues or even in the open air.

However using compressed air to amplify sound never really caught on. The Auxetophone became a bit of a dead end when sound amplification took a different direction.

Horace Short continued to enjoy success with his inventions and, together with his two brothers, went on to found the pioneering aerospace company Shorts that is now a subsidiary of the transportation and aerospace company Bombardier.

Sound amplification, whilst by no means the work of the Devil, has nevertheless contributed to a noisier environment. Perhaps the journalists’ warnings about The Howling Terror weren’t far from the truth.